What Is a Tongue-Tie?

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Published On
15 Feb, 2021
Read Time
4 minutes

According to the Association of Tongue-Tie Practitioners, approximately 1 in 10 babies are born with some restrictive membrane under the tongue, but only around half of babies with a tongue-tie experience feeding challenges caused by significantly reduced tongue function.

In this post, we'll explore what tongue-tie is, what causes it, and how it can be treated. By the end of this article, you'll have a better understanding of this condition and how to address it. So, let's dive in!

What is a tongue-tie?

A tongue-tie (also known as ankyloglossia) develops in the womb and is when the little strip of skin connecting a baby's tongue to the bottom of their mouth (the frenulum) either extends forwards towards the tip of their tongue, is attached close to their lower gum, or is too short, feels tight and restricts normal tongue movement.

A tongue-tie can be hereditary, so if you know you had a tongue-tie as a baby or live with one now, your baby may have one too.

What are the signs of a tongue-tie?

A tongue-tie can be diagnosed during a baby's newborn physical examination, but it’s not always the easiest thing to spot and you may not consider it until you notice that your baby is having difficulty feeding.

A baby with a tongue tie may find it difficult to stick their tongue out, lift it or move it from side to side. You might also notice that their tongue looks heart-shaped.

A tongue-tie can only be properly diagnosed by a qualified tongue-tie practitioner, but it's also important that parents know what to look out for. Let's run through some of the other common signs of a tongue-tie that new parents should be aware of.

Painful breastfeeding

A tongue-tie can affect your baby’s ability to latch onto your nipple when breastfeeding. This can make your nipples sore and in some cases can lead to engorgement, blocked ducts and mastitis.

Lower milk supply

If your baby isn't feeding well, this can affect your breast milk supply.

Your baby makes a smacking sound when feeding

When you breastfeed with no issues, you’re likely to hear quiet noises of suckling, swallowing, and breathing, and that’s pretty much it. If your baby is having problems latching on, they might reposition their lips or tongue and make a smacking or clicking sound as they feed.

Your nipples may appear squashed

A baby with a tongue-tie will need to work harder when breastfeeding to draw milk from your breast, which can affect the shape and appearance of your nipples. They may look lipstick-shaped, flattened or blanched.

Your baby isn’t gaining weight or appears to always be hungry

This goes hand-in-hand with having trouble breast or bottle feeding. If they have a tongue-tie, your baby might struggle to get a good amount of milk during feeds.

Your baby seems unsettled during feeds

You may find that you’re feeding them for extended periods, but your baby still seems irritated and hungry. Again, this is because they may not be able to get enough milk.

Feeds take a long time

If your baby is taking longer than 20 minutes to feed, they may be struggling to get a sufficient amount of milk. You may also notice that they feed for a long time, have a short break, and then want to feed again.

Your baby seems to be struggling with wind after feeds

As they try to take in milk when breast or bottle feeding they may be taking in more air, making them gassy and uncomfortable.

Difficulty when bottle feeding

If you're bottle feeding a baby and they have a tongue-tie, they may:

  • chomp on the teat
  • dribbles a lot while feeding
  • push the bottle teat out of their
  • gag when feeding
  • only be able to manage a very slow flow teat

Can a tongue-tie be treated?

Yes, tongue-ties can be treated by a specialised practitioner using a simple procedure called tongue-tie division, and because the range of issues tongue-ties cause can vary from very mild to severe, you should always speak to your GP, midwife, or health visitor if you think your baby may have a tongue-tie and you're concerned about their ability to feed.

you might find that, with help from feeding specialists, you can feed successfully even with the tongue-tie, and if you and your baby have found a way to feed successfully with a tongue-tie, you don't have to consider treatment.

Every tongue-tie is different and you should always trust your parenting instinct.  

Tongue-tie division is a quick procedure that involves cutting the small piece of skin under a baby's tongue that’s causing the problems.

If the baby is young, the practitioner will usually numb their tongue and simply cut it. It shouldn’t cause a lot of pain and won't cause a lot of bleeding. It will then typically heal within 24 to 48 hours.

If the baby is a little older, the doctor might want to put them under general anaesthetic and cut the tongue-tie while they’re asleep.

Some babies can be a bit unsettled for one or two days after the procedure, and they may need extra cuddles, but feeding should become a lot easier almost immediately, it may just take a little while for them to get used to their new, freely moving tongue.

Yes, when carried out by a specialised practitioner, tongue-tie division is a very quick, simple, and safe procedure that can improve feeding problems.